The following question was posed on a forum I read recently, "What makes a great photograph?". A rather glib, predictable and perhaps tongue-in-cheek reply followed, "Luck!". It made me smile. Perhaps even I once thought photography was about luck. But as the saying goes, you make your own luck.
I think boiling success down to luck is some form of defense mechanism to deflect attention from one's own failing contribution to the result. If things don't work out, you can put it down to bad luck and move on hoping for your lottery numbers to come up instead.
I think this is similar to the endless gear debates on the Internet - it's easier to talk about gear and which camera or lens is the best, even when the differences are completely imperceptible to the viewer. It's easy to blame your gear or bad luck or your circumstances or your lack of creativity or anything else. It's much harder to accept that if you're not making images you're happy with then it's down to you.
"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more luck I have." ~ Thomas Jefferson
Great results require hard work and dedication, often to the point where it seems pointless to go on. Discounting that and claiming "great" is the result of some fluke alignment in the cosmos is incredibly disingenuous to the artist. It undermines and disregards all the hard work they've put in.
For a whole variety of reasons it's impossible to predict exactly what conditions we'll find when we go out. Life is really just one giant equation with about a bazillion variables. Some may call it "luck" when those variables equate to "awesome". We could rely on luck for the occasional good image. But for consistent success I think we need to look at a combination of "anticipation" and "putting yourself out there".
We can't guarantee what we'll see or what we find precisely, but we can anticipate them. As an obvious example we can use our knowledge and experiences of sunrise and sunset to anticipate good light at those times (ignoring the howls of "oh no, not another sunset photo" for a moment!).
We can use our knowledge and experience of a place to know the lay of the land, perhaps identify useful compositions in advance. We can use weather forecasts and our own weather observations to anticipate clear skies or storm clouds.
And we can go on into ever more subtle, perhaps even subconscious observations and experiences from everything from recent rainfall, to seasonal changes, to the smallest details akin to what an animal tracker might use. In a way we're tracking and hunting a "great photo". Using all of these inputs from the big, smack-you-in-the-face research and planning to the almost imperceptible details that you'd struggle to list because they are deep in your subconscious.
This is something I'm still very much learning. It's probably something you never stop learning (and most likely local to your location). Whilst I appreciate some of the nuances in the landscape, I feel very much at the start of my journey. I guess I am still relying on a degree of luck. I'm not that expert tracker, but I'm working my way there knowing it will open the door to better images.
The other side of the coin is getting out there. As well as we can hone our sense of anticipation, we can never perfectly predict what we'll find all of the time. We have to play the numbers game and work the odds. That means spending as much time out in the field as we can. Put simply it increases our chances of finding favourable conditions. Just by being out there more we are guaranteed to find more to get excited about.
By contrast, staying in and making infrequent trips out with the camera means we are relying on the luck of the draw. The odds are stacked against us.
Great photographers are going out regularly, often when the rest of us don't expect worthwhile images. They have a strong sense of what they're looking for. They're sticking it out and are ready, when the rest of us have long given up and gone home or to the pub. And by being out there, observing and experiencing, that sense of anticipation develops, increasing the likelihood of future success.
Summary: Being Professional
We need to adopt that 'professional' approach. Make the effort. Get out, stay out. Watch and listen. Experience. Think. Put up with inconvenience and discomfort.
I don't write this to pontificate about what I do. These are the questions I am asking myself. Am I working and trying hard enough? Am I thinking and learning enough? Am I pushing? I am all too often disappointed by my answers but I know what I need to do and have a path forward.
Simply being there through anticipation and dedication isn't enough, we need to build vision and technique and then employ them mindfully. But we shouldn't discount others' successes as 'luck' when they are putting in the hard yards, and we should acknowledge the importance of doing that ourselves.
Finally, if nothing else playing the numbers game means that we'll have more good outings, though with proportionately more bad. When we return with nothing we can console ourselves with the fact that tomorrow is another day with a fresh set of opportunities. Every bad day is another day closer to a good day, and the shorter the gaps between them then the faster we arrive at the good. I always try to remind myself that a disappointing trip is not a waste of time, but another - perhaps smaller than I would like but nonetheless necessary - step of progress.
I wish I had the time, energy and circumstance to go out constantly making great pictures. But rather than bemoaning my luck at being unable to do so I need to channel that into trying and working harder, and improving my anticipation.
Here's to getting "luckier"! :)
Here Be Dragons!
As an adjunct to the above, here's some further less well formed but more personal, angst ridden and perhaps angry thoughts on the subject (and maybe an echo of my Frustrations post). As I say, Here be Dragons, so tread with care!
I've just finished watching a wildlife/nature documentary - Nordic Wild if you're interested - which I thoroughly enjoyed but it gave me that frustrated, "why can't I", "wish I had the luck to do that" feeling. It would be awesome to be paid to go out and shoot in Greenland, Iceland, Norway, et al, the Aurora, snow, glaciers, icebergs, wildlife, the lot. How freakin awesome? Compared to a desk?
And then, talking of icebergs, you realise all that you see is the tip. The "luck" of getting that great shot or that great job, or doing anything that amounts to very much - running a marathon, inventing something, curing cancer, writing a book, playing an instrument, parenting, literally anything to be proud of - is absolutely, totally, 100% a realisation of hard work and dedication. The result is merely the visible tip, everything else is unseen or not understood.
There's the classic 10,000 hour theory and I'm not going to dwell on that, just the fact that for all of the results you see there is so much that has to go in to deliver that. Anticipation as I reference above is a part of that, but perhaps not the right word. Sure, you could spend 10,000 hours on something, but it's the "anticipation" that decides what the right things to spend those hours on are. Spend the time, and spend the time wisely, because my goodness time is short.
Everything we do of value is supported by a giant mass like that of an iceberg below the surface. Most people don't see a fraction of that and don't understand the value of the results. "A pack of paper is like 10 quid, and you get about 50 prints out of an ink set, so that print should be about like max £1.50 ye?". God, we're so materialistic and lacking in understanding of the hard work and dedication (must look up some synonyms!) we have to put in to deliver.
What about the hours stood in the pouring rain while the world is sleeping? What about the time studying books and images? What about all of those - shit load - bad pictures for that one good one? The inconvenience, the angst? What about all of those times that you beat yourself up that you're no good and can't do this, just for that one moment of jubilance? Monetise that.
None of this is about material cost, or luck, or anything else. It's about putting yourself out there and experiencing stuff, finding something, pursuing an idea, a love, a need. That's where the value is and that's what defines "great". Not luck or money. "Great" is an accumulation of everything that we are and is completely subjective, and perhaps completely unseen ("an artist is worth more dead than alive").
If we want to achieve anything, literally anything of real value in this life we have to work our asses off to do it. Anything less is a superficial version of what could have been. And so when I look at my images, and watch documentaries and feel the desire - burning need - to do better, be better, do more and live a truer more congruent life I know I can't look to luck. I know I need to work hard. I need to chase the rainbow.
May you work hard for your dreams and may they come true.